Seven hundred bears have died this year on bear bile farms in Vietnam,due to starvation or infection, according to Animals Asia. And Jill Robinson, founder of the organization, estimates that more than 12,000 bears are kept on bear bile farms in China and Vietnam.
"The extraction of bear bile from live bears causes unimaginable suffering and long term health problems," she said.
The tradition of harvesting bear bile and bear parts dates back over 3,000 years and continues to be practiced in Vietnam, Laos, South Korea, and China. Bile drained from the gallbladders of Asian black bears and Malaysian sun bears is primarily purchased by Korean and Chinese customers and is believed to be a cure-all for ailments ranging from bruising to liver cancer.
Bile draining leave bears with infected gallbladders, liver cancer, heart conditions, and blindness.
Robinson said farmers drain the bile from catheters implanted in the bears or by creating a fistula in a bear's abdomen from which to drain the gallbladder — a method called "free drip."
Finding a bile farm in Vietnam isn't difficult, but getting inside one is another matter. Guard dogs and shotgun wielding men keep a protective eye on many facilities, since keeping bears for the purpose of harvesting their bile is illegal.
VICE News visited several farms in the province of Phuc Tho, located in northern Vietnam. Inside, bears sat hunched over in cramped, rusty cages, panting from the heat and humidity. Their excrement sat in piles below each of their cages. The bears were thin and some were missing patches of hair.
Despite the prohibition, bear bile farming remains a common practice. Tuan Bendixsen, director of the Vietnam office for Animals Asia, explained why.
"Bear bile farming is such a complex issue that there is no one answer for why it persists," he said. "But for me there are two key issues: the imperfection of the law and continued demand."
Since 2005, bear bile farming is prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But famers are skirting those protections by calling their animals pets and keeping the me hidden away from whatever minimum animal welfare policing they might encounter.
"As long as the grey area of ownership exists, new bears will continue to be trafficked and suffer bile extraction," Bendixsen said. "We see evidence of this in the number of trafficked cubs we receive. Many of those discovered in the north may be destined for the Chinese market, but [cubs] are found all over the country implying that they are also destined for domestic farms."
Animals Asia conducted a survey in 2011 of 60,000 traditional medical practitioners in Vietnam. Forty percent of them said they prescribe bear bile for serious aliments such as liver cancer, and for less serious aliments such as sore throat, bruising, muscle ailments, and fever. While greater law enforcement might help curb the bear trade, Bendixsen suggests that educating the public on bile practices and alternatives are necessary for tamping down on the demand for bear bile.
In response, the group launched a campaign to educate doctors — and the public —on alternative remedies. And, said Bendixsen, they've highlighted the horrendous conditions in which captive bears are forced to live.
"This is why education is so vitally important," said Bendixsen. "Nobody who has seen the reality of bear bile farming — the cruelty and the suffering and the long-term health effects — can argue that it is harmless."
The education programs and greater enforcement of the law in Vietnam seem to be working. Bile prices have dropped by 85%in Vietnam since 2011. Still demand in China and South Korea remains high.
Animals Asia has rescued 20 bears this year. At a rescue center in northern Vietnam run, seventeen bears were missing paws, four were blind, and several others were obese from eating scraps of meat and rice instead of the fruit and vegetables they have evolved to eat in the wild.
"They are unable to go back to the wild after they are rescued," said Trinh Thuy Phan, a spokesman for the group. "Most have injuries that would not allow them to return, while others just do not have the skills to survive on their own."